Power of Backlog Refinement
Take a look at the power of backlog refinement over lengthy Sprint planning meetings in Agile.
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The ‘standard’ Scrum model recommends that the team and the Product Owner (PO) review the Product Backlog in the Sprint Planning session and finalize the stories to be completed in the upcoming Sprint. The team is also expected to size the stories before they commence their Sprint.
In practice, however, Sprint Planning is too short a session to review the stories, prioritize and estimate them. The planning session is too late in the cycle to complete all this. Though the Scrum model recommends a longer duration, typically the Scrum teams spend about 2 hours for Sprint Planning. In these 2 hours expecting them to complete all that is required to start their Sprint is a big ask. And not a fair expectation in most cases.
So what do we do? Most teams create windows to review the Product Backlog ahead of the Sprint – they organize Product Backlog Refinement meetings. In these meetings, the Product Owner walks the team through the stories, maps the stories to epics and the program/portfolio level priorities, answers questions from the team, and prioritizes the stories. The team on their part identifies any dependencies, identifies high-level implementation options, and estimates the stories – typically using story points or T-Shirt sizes.
In these meetings, the team and the PO think farther than the upcoming Sprint. Usually, they look at 2 or 3 Sprints in advance. That is, if the ongoing Sprint is ’n’ they look at Sprint n+1 and n+2 and accordingly pick up stories for discussion. This is to get a view of what is coming up, initiate communication to address dependencies, and prepare for potentially new/changed tools or infrastructure requirements.
Refining More Frequently
Often, teams conduct backlog refinement sessions more than once during a Sprint. Typically they organize two such sessions. In the first session they look at stories for the next two Sprints and come up with very high-level estimates – at this stage, the requirements are not clear and some vagueness is expected. But during the second refinement session, the stories are expected to be a lot clearer as the PO is expected to have gathered additional information on the stories. With that, the team will be able to estimate better and they almost finalize the stories for the next Sprint with their priorities and size estimates.
When this cadence is established and the teams learn more, the refinement process gets more mature. The PO knows what the team would expect and the team knows what types of questions could get them clarity on the stories. The Scrum Master plays the key role of facilitating these time-boxed sessions and often moderates these to get the best outcome for the team.
Skip the Planning Meeting?
When this process matures the Sprint Planning meeting is just a short one where the PO reconfirms the priority of the stories. The team seeks any final inputs and reconfirms their estimates. Sometimes the teams even skip this meeting if they manage to finalize everything in the second refinement session. This approach helps in reducing the duration of meetings such as the standard Planning meeting – a key consideration when working with remote teams connected over collaboration platforms.
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